Lapland: Welcome to wilderness

Reindeer with furry summer horns at Batsuoj Sami camp in Lapland.
Reindeer with furry summer horns at Batsuoj Sami camp in Lapland.
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New direct flights have opened up Swedish Lapland for long weekend breaks. Sarah Marshall finds out what’s on offer.

Sitting cross-legged at the end of a wooden jetty, I’m floating on a vast, watery mirror under a cornflower blue sky. In a few months time, this lake will be frozen and the landscape wrapped with snow – the more recognisable face of Lapland. But right now, it’s summer and baking hot, so I find myself wearing shorts and a T-shirt just 180 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

At night, the sun skims the horizon and never properly sets, stealing the dark stage where the Northern Lights will perform later in the year, attracting thousands of tourists to the region.

At a latitude of 64 degrees north, Skelleftea is a sleepy town in southern Swedish Lapland, not far from the Baltic Sea, characterised by clapboard houses in a palette of pastel hues. And thanks to a new direct three-hour flight from the UK with Ryanair, it’s set to become the gateway to an area popular with adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. “Whatever season you come here, it’s beautiful,” says Thorbjorn, a sprightly, philosophical nature lover who runs the Svansele Wilderness Center, an hour’s drive away. He owns nine overnight camps in Swedish Lapland, ranging from comfortable en-suite apartments to traditional lavvo tents lined with reindeer skins, and offers activities for both summer and winter months.

Thorbjorn admits that he never bothered going to school, but instead spent his childhood learning to hunt and fish – skills now fundamental to the business he set up after friends visiting from Stockholm described Svansele as one of most beautiful places on earth. Give him 24 hours’ notice, and he boldly claims he can find a moose in the surrounding woodland – or he’ll refund the cost of your plane ticket home.

“I love this place,” he tells me. “But if, when I’m old, my children don’t want to continue the business, I’ll lock it all up and throw the key in the river.”

I appreciate his passion for the wilderness on a quad bike ride through the boreal forest, thick with bristly birch and pine trees tickling the sky. Unfortunately, though, my zest for adventure turns sour when I hit a stump and career off-road into a tree, sending pine needles cascading from the sky like confetti, and destroying the quad’s bumper beyond recognition.

I bravely get back in the saddle, but no less than five minutes later, while attempting to negotiate a ditch, I mistakenly slam the accelerator, rearing my mechanical stallion up onto its haunches and skidding across the road. I end up vertical, wondering if 
I’m done for, gripping the handles as if driving along a one-way road to heaven (or hell).

It’s a stunt that would leave Evel Knievel weeping, and even characteristically loquacious Thunder Bear is lost for words. But I won’t be beaten, and fortunately I manage to make it back to base without destroying anything else, including myself.

Before leaving, we visit another jewel in Thorbjorn’s crown – a taxidermy exhibition featuring nearly 700 stuffed creatures, lovingly displayed in their natural surroundings. Most of the menagerie are road kill, knocked over by cars... or possibly quad bikes being driven by reckless tourists.

There are bears, owls, moose and elk, but the most precious piece in the collection is a hermaphrodite ptarmigan. Thorbjorn won’t part with that for any money, I’m told.

Many of the creatures on display can still be seen in the wild, although the hulking but shy brown bears are much harder to spot.

Matti and Stina, who run Lapland Canoe Central in Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle, tell me they’ve seen the ursus arctos fleetingly from the car. But I’m quite relieved we don’t encounter any angry mammals on the small island where we stop for a rest, tea and cinnamon buns, before continuing our canoe safari.

Gliding slowly through the water is one of the best ways to appreciate this pristine landscape, and with every dip of my paddle, I feel a little further from reality.

Respect for the natural world is vital for survival in this environment, something the indigenous Sami people know only too well. Once nomads who would roam the high latitudes, they have since adapted to more modern lifestyles, but their knowledge and love of nature remains undiluted.

Reindeer herder Lotta Svensson still visits a seite (sacred place) close to the Batsuoj Sami camp which she set up with her husband Tom to educate people about the Sami way of life. Using a lasso, she rounds up her reindeer, with many currently sporting blood-filled, furry summer horns. Far fewer Sami now make money from reindeer herding, she explains, and this year alone, she and Tom lost 60 per cent of their animals to predators, meaning they were unable to sell any for meat. She blames programmes to reintroduce wolves into the area, and demands that the Swedish government should take action.

To get a better view of the camp, we sit on a simple raft, attached by rope to the riverbank, and haul ourselves across the water. The log-built lavvos are dwarfed by spindly, towering birch trees, many covered in thick black moss – a favourite food for reindeer and an indicator that there’s very little pollution here.

Lotta tells me about the history of the Sami; how their belief system, shamanic drums and eventually even their own language were banned by the Swedish church. “But it’s never too late to relearn,” she says with confidence. “It just takes a little longer.”

And if the place of worship is this beautiful, it’s certainly worth the effort.

• Sarah Marshall was a guest of Visit Sweden (www.visitsweden.com), Destination Skelleftea (www.destinationskelleftea.se/en/Destination) and Swedish Lapland (www.swedishlapland.co.uk).

For more information on activities, visit Svansele Wilderness Centre (www.svansele.se) and Lapland Canoe Central (www.jokkmokkguiderna.com).

An overnight stay at Batsuoj Sami camp (www.batsuoj.se/eng) costs 1,100 SEK (approx. £96) pp, including breakfast, dinner, sleeping bag and use of boats.